Dead Space 3 starts a while after the events of the previous game. Isaac Clarke has survived two Necromorph invasions, but he's retreated from society. That changes when a group of Earth Government soldiers rescue him from the clutches of Unitologist assassins. Fellow Dead Space 2 survivor — and Isaac's ex-girlfriend — Ellie Langford has found something that may stop Necromorph outbreaks once and for all. However, she went missing during a mission, and he needs to save her and her mission. For the second time, Isaac ventures into a Necromorph-infested wasteland to rescue his girlfriend — this time from the mysterious arctic world of Tau Volantis.
Dead Space 3 is not really a horror game. It waves its hands at the idea from time to time, but much of the oppressive atmosphere has faded in the wake of Isaac's increasing competence and the addition of a co-op partner and friends. People die, and there are horrible body mutilations, but the game feels closer to Mass Effect 3 than it does Dead Space. The title does a reasonably good job of making the cast enjoyable, but Dead Space 2 felt like it belonged to an entirely different genre. The experience feels bland because there's no tension and investment in the newer, less scary, enemies. Gone are the utterly horrifying moments, like the infected pre-school or the infamous eye-poking sequence. Everything feels safer and more sanitized.
As an ending to the Dead Space trilogy, it's also distinctly unsatisfying. It introduces a pretty large deus ex machina that changes the tone of the enemies and Isaac. That sort of thing may be inevitable in a series that runs too long, but it's extremely weird to go from the unluckiest engineer in existence to some kind of universe-saving messiah within a game. A lot of the interesting and subtle horror elements are gone in favor of more straightforward and obvious evil. The Unitologists have gone from a Scientology-inspired cult to being barely distinguishable from Cerberus in Mass Effect, and the Necromorphs feel more like zombies and less like The Thing. Even your fellow human characters are broad archetypes who are predictable in their actions and deaths. The ending is also ridiculous and involves an enemy who is so silly that it's impossible to take it seriously.
On the surface, Dead Space 3 doesn't seem to have made a lot of changes to the franchise. The basic mechanics are similar, and you'll find it very easy to pick up and play if you've gone through the earlier games. The most obvious change is the addition of co-op. Unlike Resident Evil 5, the co-op in Dead Space 3 is optional. If you choose to play single-player, Isaac is on his own most of the time. If you have a co-op partner, he ends up hanging out with soldier John Carver. Enemy spawns and some of the puzzles change to compensate for having two players instead of one, and several plot sequences are slightly different. The story and basic structure don't change, but how things play out does. For example, in one early scene, Isaac chases after his helmet, which has flown away while he is about to be sucked into space. In the single-player version, Isaac barely manages to grab it in the nick of time. In the co-op version, Carver pops forward and knocks it toward Isaac, saving his life. It's the same outcome but a different lead-up.
The co-op is easily the shining point of Dead Space 3. Although it's optional, it feels like most of the game was designed with it in mind. Almost every sequence is more fun with Carver to spice them up. Solving a puzzle on your own isn't very interesting, but rushing to solve one while your partner guards your back from a swarm of oncoming Necromorphs is pulse-pounding excitement. Some puzzles only allow one player to interact with it at a time, and while it isn't a huge problem, it isn't very fun, either.
The same can't be said for the single-player portion. Being alone makes every sequence feel like it's missing something — because it is. Isaac gets out of danger with less effort, puzzles feel simplistic and uninteresting, and enemy swarms are only dangerous when they get behind you. Several areas of the game are optional side-missions that deal with Carver's backstory, but they're inaccessible unless you're playing in co-op. It feels remarkably incongruous if you come across one and realize you're not allowed to go there because the game says so. Many of the foibles and flaws are also much easier to overlook when you're busting Necromorphs with a pal.
One of the big issues in Dead Space 3 is that combat balance has been thrown off. Necromorphs are less durable, so aiming for their limbs is still useful, but it's not a near-necessity as it was in previous games. You can take down Necromorphs with body shots, but they make up for this in speed and numbers. One of the most common enemies is a glowing-faced zombie armed with axes, but it rushes at you. Many enemies are faster, and there is less emphasis on unique enemies and weaknesses. Expect every enemy to rush at you in swarms of relatively easy-to-kill Necromorph types, which are occasionally supported by a few ranged foes.
Enemies can get in some cheap hits. I've had enemies appear behind me with my back to a wall and no vent nearby. I've had them hit me even if I dodge-roll out of the way with no seeming interaction between our hit boxes. This is alleviated somewhat in co-op, where players can watch each other's back, but it can also happen there. In the previous titles, this would have been awful, but in DS3, it's only a minor frustration because the game throws med packs at you like they're going out of style. At any given time, you can have an inventory full of small med packs. By the fifth chapter, I was forced to toss med packs to make room for other inventory items. The aftermath of any fight is littered with healing items. The result is that tanking hits is the name of the game. You don't want to stand toe-to-toe with a Necromorph all the time, but cheap hits appear to have been taken into account by the developers and compensated with an overabundance of health. It's still possible to die, but it is significantly less threatening now, even on harder difficulty modes.
This makes fights feel a lot less threatening, and they don't feel much like the fights from previous games. Necromorphs in your face is now the status quo instead of a sign that something has gone terribly wrong. My shotgun was murdering Necromorphs with a couple of body shots, which meant I didn't have to worry about disabling their limbs at all. Dropping the rushing hordes without taking too much damage is still an enjoyable task when you're not at a lot of risk. Coming out of a fight unharmed feels good, even if it is luck as well as skill.
The new weapon-crafting mechanic doesn't help much. On the surface, it seems incredibly cool. Instead of having up to four weapons at once, you have two fully customizable weapons. You can alter the main fire and secondary fire and give them various upgrades that completely alter how they play. I was able to create a gun that shot explosive spears into enemies, Ripley's flamethrower/machine gun combo from Aliens, and tons of other neat gadgets. The problem was that "neat" wasn't necessarily "good." You can create an explosive javelin launcher, but it is much easier and more effective to make a really good shotgun with a machine gun on top. Enemy variety is limited enough that you can make one weapon that does everything well, and it tends to be the most boring option.
The universal ammo mechanic works against it. Instead of having weapon-specific ammo drops, every weapon uses the same ammo pool. The number of shots depends on the weapon, with theoretically more powerful weapons getting fewer shots, but the balance is slightly off. In reality, lesser weapons with a ton of shots effectively end up having infinite ammo. The aforementioned shotgun is a big example of this. By the time I gained access to a shotgun, I had roughly 300 rounds for it, and that number never decreased no matter how much I used it. Universal ammo is an iffy prospect that Dead Space 3 doesn't handle very well. Fortunately, it avoids a Deus Ex: Invisible War situation where you're constantly out of ammo if you using stronger weapons, but it replaces it with the death of any resource conservation.
Speaking of resource conservation, one of the more controversial aspects of Dead Space 3 is its overabundance of DLC. There was a huge batch of "microtransaction" packs available on launch day, offering items and crafting materials for a small fee. Gamers were understandably concerned that this meant a scarcity of materials to encourage microtransactions, but Dead Space 3 throws resources at you. About one-fourth of the way into the game, I was sitting on thousands of almost every resource. You can also spend real money to increase the number of robots (three by default) or decrease the time they spend out (10 real-world minutes to start). The microtransactions are a bad idea, but for the exact opposite reason: There is no reason to buy them, as it's easy to get a near-infinite amount of resources.
Dead Space 3 isn't a huge difference from Dead Space 2, but the environments are more boring. It's not really a good escalation to go from the horrifying infested USG Ishimura to the crumbling Sprawl to a bunch of nearly identical (and far less scary) spaceships and then a Lost Planet-style ice planet. It doesn't help that the game loves copying-and-pasting layouts. If you do side-missions, you're going to encounter similar layouts again and again — sometimes multiple times in the same area. It's realistic, as ships would have the same basic structure, but realistic isn't the same thing as fun, especially in a game about shooting space monsters. Some of the character faces also look silly when they're expressing any sort of strong emotion. The voice work is pretty good, but the sound effects lose a lot. Much of the tension is gone, and a large part of that is that there is little audio build-up like there was in the first two games. Monsters run screaming at you, and only Carver encounters creepy hallucinations.
Dead Space 3 is in the unique position of being a fun game but a bad sequel. It contains few of the series trademarks, so it feels extremely out of place in the franchise. The gameplay is enjoyable, but it could frustrate die-hard Dead Space fans who expect something like the previous games. It can be hard to do, but if you're willing to approach Dead Space 3 on its own merits and to play it in co-op, it's a fun, if flawed, game. It just doesn't feel like Dead Space 3, and that may be a hard sell for series faithful.
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